During the struggle for decolonization, Frantz Fanon argued that artists who mimicked European aestheticism were “beginning at the end,” skipping the inventive phase of youth for a decadence thought more typical of Europe’s declining empires. Robert Stilling takes up Fanon’s assertion to argue that decadence became a key idea in postcolonial thought, describing both the failures of revolutionary nationalism and the assertion of new cosmopolitan ideas about poetry and art.
In Stilling’s account, anglophone postcolonial artists have reshaped modernist forms associated with the idea of art for art’s sake and often condemned as decadent. By reading decadent works by J. K. Huysmans, Walter Pater, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde alongside Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Agha Shahid Ali, Derek Mahon, Yinka Shonibare, Wole Soyinka, and Bernardine Evaristo, Stilling shows how postcolonial artists reimagined the politics of aestheticism in the service of anticolonial critique. He also shows how fin de siècle figures such as Wilde questioned the imperial ideologies of their own era.
Like their European counterparts, postcolonial artists have had to negotiate between the imaginative demands of art and the pressure to conform to a revolutionary politics seemingly inseparable from realism. Beginning at the End argues that both groups—European decadents and postcolonial artists—maintained commitments to artifice while fostering oppositional politics. It asks that we recognize what aestheticism has contributed to politically engaged postcolonial literature. At the same time, Stilling breaks down the boundaries around decadent literature, taking it outside of Europe and emphasizing the global reach of its imaginative transgressions.
Gives new and global life to decadence…This is a deeply learned and original work that shows the necessity of bringing modernist and postcolonial studies together.
In a series of brilliant readings, Robert Stilling offers a new understanding of anticolonial anglophone cultural production, one in which liberatory aims are best served, counterintuitively, not by the nationalist arts of social realism but rather by a cosmopolitan modernist poetics of decadence: arts and literatures that celebrate the aesthetic for its own sake.
A dazzling confluence of fin-de-siècle aesthetics and postcolonial thought.
One of the joys of Beginning at the End is its provision of fresh and surprising perspectives on canonical figures of literary decadence by embedding their writing in the material contexts of colonialism and postcolonial criticism.
This book presents a highly timely contribution to our understanding of modernism, decadence, and postcolonial literary history. Ranging impressively over a global frame of reference, and joining the wrongly divorced sensibilities of modernism and decadence, Stilling shows how a modernist poetics of decadence may serve equally to record a process of decline in history and a register of critique of those developments. This is a major work of literary history.
Stilling argues that late-nineteenth-century ‘decadent’ writing—its styles, governing tropes, and ways of imagining the past—have proven crucial to poets, playwrights, and visual artists whom we now call postcolonial. These are artists whose subjects include new nations, immigrants, people of color, the new global economy, and new international relations, and decadence has helped them to address these topics without illusions and after the failure of simplist or ill-fated realist or revolutionary programs. This is a book that scholars across the discipline are going to have to read.
Robert Stilling is at the forefront of a group of scholars exploring the powerful legacy of fin-de-siècle culture in twentieth-century art and literature. Beginning at the End convincingly demonstrates that decadent texts and imagery were central to the project of postcolonial writing, and carried a political charge that few others have noticed. It will figure in discussions of both decadence and global modernism for many years to come.
- 2019, Winner of the Modernist Studies Association First Book Prize
- 392 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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